Business End enables you to have your demo reviewed by a panel of producers, songwriters, musicians and managers from the Music Producer's Guild.
Haydn Bendall (HB): "I started enjoying the chords and the piano sound at the very beginning of the first track, and at that point I thought 'this could be good,' but after a while I began to feel that it was really awful and bereft on all levels. The music seemed to reflect the arrogance displayed in the covering letter. It's like a parasite latched on the back of something else, and in this case it's latched onto the body of contemporary experimental music."
Chris Thorne (CT): "The arrogance of the covering letter doesn't help their cause, so some initial advice for them is to be less arrogant in your covering letter because you will piss people off straight away. If you write, as they have done, 'we hope to redress the increasing imbalance of much short term music that pervades nearly every media channel with music of a more purposeful nature,' then you have to deliver on that statement, and this doesn't deliver.
"This letter suggests to the reader that this demo is going to be the most fantastic thing they've ever heard and that Zylinder are going to have an impact on the world of music! Well there are an awful lot of good musicians out there so if you think you are the one who is going to make the difference, forget it, you're not."
Mark Irwin (MI): "The letter also has some very poor grammar; they write 'the music inhabits the irreplaceable and is born from a very great passion,' which doesn't make any sense. After reading that I thought that the music would be pretentious, and it is.
"The advice I would give to Zylinder is to revisit the entire history of experimental music because there is a fantastic culture there that they could draw upon, and then they might then come up with something more interesting. I did quite like the artwork, partly because they haven't used the usual chiched photographs."
Andy East (AE): "Soulless was the word I came up with to describe this. It's not experimental music because it isn't experimenting with anything."
HB: "There are lots of nice and friendly sleeve notes. It says here 'We are Carmen, we are your friends,' and then for the first track the covering letter says 'during the recording, feedback from the monitors created a slight buzz, but we decided to leave it in as it created an atmospheric feel to the song,' so I say 'good for them.'
"I thought it was really good and they had tons of nice ideas. I particularly enjoyed the clashing harmonies, the use of the voice, some of the drum ideas and some of the sounds. There is a freshness about it and I am automatically drawn to things that are genuinely unusual, rather than being unusual just for the sake of it. I liked the imagery generated by the music: you can imagine pictures, film, dance and theatre all working with this material. It could be used in so many different ways.
"As a criticism, I think the sound palette is too rich at the moment. It sounds pompous but maybe they could do with some help fashioning their ideas.
"I think they are nice people and they would be nice to work with because they sound like they are open to suggestions. I also imagine that they could lead a producer on a journey as much as any producer could help them. I think you could make a good record with them and if I was presented with that I think I would really enjoy working on it."
MI: "The friendly approach of the letter makes you smile and feel good before you've even listened to it.
"We use our eyes more than we think when choosing these things; they have put an interesting image on the cover and they've used it again on the back, but they've made it black and white and solarised it.
"Considering the kit they are using they are getting fantastic quality results but it is very much quieter than everything else that we've listened to, and a little bit dull in the top end, which might be a production detail worth addressing.
"I also think that I would enjoy working with a band like this because they have interesting ideas, they are definitely experimenting and it's well done. It is a little bit derivative at the moment but that can be a starting point. So they have the image, the music and the attitude."
CT: "The thing they got right instantly was the statement 'we are your friends,' which was disarming: you sit there and think 'that's nice.' The reason that is important is that a lot of the time, unsigned bands haven't got a big budget to play with, so as a producer you are often working with them more for love than for money. Thanks to Carmen's approach you instantly want to like them and help them, and that is very important if you are going to be sitting in a studio for 18 hours battling with a mix to get it right. They have created the expectation that working with them will be a nice experience.
"Musically, they remind me a little of the band Lamb and, although they haven't got the budget to do Lamb-type stuff to a Lamb standard, I think they can do better than they are achieving at the moment. That is down to confidence, and they may need someone to help give them more confidence in their ideas. In fact, producing is not really about softening the edges, it is often more about giving a band confidence in their ideas. For example, when the bass player says I've got this idea it is the producer's job to listen and encourage them. Carmen have a lot of ideas and a lot of talent but, like a lot of demos, you can feel when a band are not doing what they are capable of."
AE: "A lot of the time artists want to develop their idiosyncrasies, it's just a matter of having the confidence to realise their ideas.
Carmen have achieved something very important: they have grabbed the attention of four people who now feel they are their friends, so full marks. The only question is, now we are friends, when would you like to have us over for dinner?"
HB: "I really don't like the Pink Floyd-style guitar, which seems to go on for ages at the start of the first track. I do love Pink Floyd, and I think Dave Gilmour's guitar sound at the start of Wish You Were Here and on Dark Side Of The Moon is wonderful, but, although this demo has a very similar guitar idea, it is just an average riff in comparison, so I wonder why they put that bit right at the start?
"I definitely wouldn't want to work on this as a producer, because it feels very grandiose and it is full of what appear to me as false passions. From experience I can tell that working on such a project would involve really late nights and bad ideas!"
CT: "I agree that this would be painful to work on, because not only is somebody in this band clearly very passionate about it, but it is also lyrically and musically very serious, and I wonder whether the artist would be open to somebody else coming in and contributing ideas. It sounds to me like one person's vehicle, or like a solo project to which other people have been allowed to contribute. It is nicely produced but a little overproduced at the same time."
AE: "Track two is so much more interesting than the first one. This is mainly because within the first 16 seconds of track two a heavy drum track starts which would have been a much better way to get our attention than the Pink Floyd pastiche."
MI: "I think they take themselves too seriously. With this type of intense music there needs to be light as well as shade, so they need to inject a sense of humour. While it was playing someone mentioned Depeche Mode, who are quite serious, but I found myself thinking of Gavin Friday, who did very similar stuff in the '90s, but he is very theatrical and doesn't take himself seriously at all. That sort of colour is what I missed; I wanted it to turn around, surprise me and become beautiful in some way, but it just stayed dark.
"There are some pictures of the band members on the covering letter and they look like people with angst. I get a sense just from the music that this writer is the sort of person who is a complete control freak, so, like the rest of the panel, I get the feeling that collaborating with him and this band would be hard work.
"They probably weren't aware of the Pink Floyd reference in the first song's intro but because of that it might get put straight in the bin at a record company, so it's a shame that it is the first track.
"I think it is an accident that the worst songs get put on first on many demos. Most demos are sent by people without producers, and track order is really a production decision, so it's not surprising. When you are working on track order you do need guidance from outside, because it is usually the song that you have just written that you feel is the best and you feel most passionate about, even if it is the worst you've ever written. Act Noir may have just finished track number one."
AE: "Whenever I've appeared on face-to-face panels for BACS, or whichever organisation it may be, I have been amazed by how many writers and musicians brush off criticism by announcing that the song in question is not their best track, and the instant reply we come up with is 'then why did you include it instead of playing us your best track?'
CT: "Whenever I am putting together a demo I try to imagine if the song I am putting on first will work on the radio. I can't imagine anybody playing Act Noir's first track on the radio so I don't think it is a good one to have on first. The second track is a lot more instant, so that would be the better choice to open the demo.
"The first track of a demo is like a calling card and it needs to say 'this is me, this is what I sound like. I'm distinctive and great.' This doesn't say that, and 15 seconds into the track you feel like hitting the fast forward control."
AE: "There is the old 30-second A&R rule that if it doesn't grab your attention in half a minute then it is time then move on."
HB: "But that 30 seconds needn't be jammed full of different things, it just has to be a fantastic theme."
Mark Irwin has worked as a freelance sound engineer and producer for over 17 years. He cut his teeth as a live engineer on many worldwide concert tours, but later became MD of West London's Straylight Studios for seven years. In recent years, Mark has been involved with the development and delivery of the Music Technology BA, the Music/Multimedia Technology Foundation Degree and, most recently, the development of an MA in Audio Production at the London College of Music and Media.
Chris Thorne: A professional producer songwriter for eight years, he is part of Rinkydink (www.rinkydink.ws). Rinkydink are a UK based songwriting, music production and remixing team working across all music genres. Current projects include producing exceptional unsigned bands, film soundtrack work and songwriting, and production for major-label pop, rock and urban acts in the UK and the US. Chris is a Director of the MPG.
After working as a piano tuner for Steinway & Sons, Haydn Bendall was employed at Abbey Road studios for over 17 years, including 10 as senior engineer. in addition to working with artists such as Fleetwood Mac, George Martin, Elton John, Damon Albarn and Hans Zimmer, Haydn has collaborated on several musicals with Eric Woolfson and has made extensive recordings with all the major London orchestras. Today, Haydn is a partner of the UK production company DAT Productions.
Andy East, a former engineer and session player, is Managing director of a London-based Artist Management/Consultancy company called Hip-Hop Cow. He regularly attends and chairs industry panels and seminars for a number of clients, including The British Academy of Composers & Songwriters (BACS). He is also a consultant for several labels in Europe and the UK. Andy is Chairman of The Music Producers Guild.
Many thanks to Phoenix Sound Studios who hosted the session. The MPG's web site is at www.mpg.org.uk